A leading psychologist, Susan Kobasa, undertook research into the subject of stress-hardiness. This research looked at many groups of people who have very stressful occupations. Those who seem to cope with their job stress – in other words, those who have a “hardiness” to it – seem to share three specific characteristics or personality traits:
- Challenge – Those who are susceptible to stress tend to perceive difficulties as threats, stress-hardy people perceive such difficulties as challenges. Instead of becoming defensive, they become curious, and begin to look for angles and ideas they may have missed. These people welcome new situations as opportunities to learn, to grow, and to develop on a personal level. As a result, they are able to turn difficulties to their advantage.
- Commitment – People who are high in commitment feel like they are part of a larger purpose. They are, therefore, able to find meaning in their work, are fully involved in what they are doing and they give it their best effort. In this context, problems are more likely to be experienced as minor setbacks in the larger scheme of things, rather than major roadblocks to the work at hand.
- Personal Control – People who feel that they are in control believe that they can influence events and surroundings, that they can make things happen. They have a strong sense of self-efficacy and an internal locus of control versus feelings of powerlessness or feeling like a victim of circumstances. At the same time, they recognise what is beyond their control…and don’t waste effort and angst trying to control those things. Instead, they stay focused on their purpose and intent, but are flexible when it comes to strategy, and will alter goals when necessary.
Now the science piece is done, I would like to share with you how I have been working on improving my own resilience over the course of this last year. To be honest, I should have started working on it a long time ago. To start, a bit of background.
For as long as I can remember I’ve grafted. Fitting in as many working hours as I possibly could, I did. I always thought I was pretty resilient. I’ve had an interesting life (more of that in my very first blog here) and I truly believe that the experiences I have had and the challenges I have faced led me to the place I am in now. I used to approach any knock-back, rejection or failure with the mind-set of “Fuck it. Suck it up, learn, move on”. Upon reflection, I’m not so sure I was resilient, as such, more of a cock-sure kid with a point to prove.
The “Suck it up” approach worked well for nearly 20 years. Then in 2012 it didn’t work for me any more.
A number of things all happened at the same time and I struggled to cope with them. Really struggled. Grief, family ill-health, a crazy work load; still, I convinced myself that I was fine and tried to suck it up and get on with life.
I was putting up an arch in the garden one day when I just broke down on the lawn. I couldn’t do it. The pieces just didn’t fit. My brain couldn’t work out why because my problem-solving skills had done a runner. Mark was working from home that day and he came downstairs to make a brew right at the time I had a meltdown. Looking out of the window, I can only imagine what he must have thought. There was me properly sobbing because I wasn’t able to connect a few poles and screw them together.
I knew then that I needed help. What that looked like, I had no idea. Off to the GP I went and broke down some more. I was given a questionnaire to fill out and the results directed the GP to suggest I was suffering from a low mood and he prescribed me meds and a week off work. I wanted to lamp him. I don’t like medication, never have. I also didn’t believe meds were the answer and how was not working going to help? I needed to keep busy, didn’t I? Keep the mind active. I obeyed; didn’t have the energy to argue.
A week later I was back in front of the very same GP with no change in how I felt. I asked him to refer me. The one extra I’ve always believed in is private medical for both Mark & I. I accepted something was very wrong. I didn’t want to believe it but I knew in my heart that I needed something my GP couldn’t provide. A referral to the Birmingham Priory followed. A diagnosis of deep depression and anxiety.
12 weeks later, a summer of adjustment, medication and some pretty awesome therapy, to give me some strategies in case it happened again, meant that I was ready to get back to it with an understanding of what had happened and why. A chemical imbalance in my brain due to an overload of “stuff”. It happens. But I could have prevented it had I the tools and knowledge to recognise what was happening. Recognising the signs of when my resilience was slipping and, more importantly, what action to take to, both develop my resilience further and, stop it from fading in the future.
Stupidly, I didn’t change anything. I weaned myself off the meds and I went straight back to the life I knew. Full on, a gazzillion things all going on, not stopping.
Last year, I recognised some of the signs from my “Summer of discontent”. It scared me. So I changed everything.
What did I do?
I was honest with myself. Accepted what is happening. First up, the easy part. Address my working life. By far, the single biggest portion of my life was always spent working. Leave early doors, do some work, come home and have dinner, do some more work. Go to bed. Repeat. So I set up on my own. A ballsy move and one I’m still not sure is right for me but it has bought me time. I could now choose the pace I went at, how much work I had on, who I worked with. All three things vitally important, I now realise. I took an interim post for 9 months.
Every job I have had, I believe, was my calling. Every single job in a shop, bar, hairdressers, more bars, a pub manager, a trainer, a recruiter, a HR professional, the senior roles, the development, the learning. I loved it all. In every single job, I made a difference. Maybe to one person, maybe to entire organisations, but that was enough to keep pushing me on. It’s still the thing that drives me.
A sense of purpose. This doesn’t have to be work related at all. When I was at my lowest, I found solace in my garden. To sow seeds, to nurture, to love, to feed, to connect, to prune, to maintain. Strangely, as I type this, all of these things could be some kind of weird analogy for how we should approach our own well-being. I make time for my garden every day. That’s code for “I make time for me every day”. My garden needs me to look after it or it will become an overgrown, tangled mess awash with brambles, weeds with no structure. A bit like my brain will become again if I don’t make time to look after it.
I CAN outlook. What can I do, what can I control, what can I influence. All questions I ask myself often when presented with a question, response or challenge that starts to niggle me. If the answer is nothing, I pop it in my “shit box” and approach with a positive first response. Great, thanks, absolutely, of course, certainly, what I can do is…… Most importantly for me, I work out what I can do, how I can do it, why I can / want do it. I choose my response.
Belief in my own ability. When I had my wobble, a lot of self-doubt crept in. Was I any good at, well, anything? It took a long time for this part to come back. Of course, my ability to do any of the things I could previously hadn’t changed. It was the little monkey in the back of my head that was leading me to question myself.
Call on Family / PLN / Social Network / Professionals for support. It was hard at first to talk about this to anyone, especially those closest to me. I shut myself off for a time and didn’t connect or interact with anyone. When I did finally feel ready, I was blown away with the support. This is, by far, the biggest learning point for me. There will be people you know, and even some you don’t, who will have experienced similar. A kindly ear, a hug, honesty or just being there has been the biggest support. I wish I turned to them all far sooner. Inevitably, there are some people who were in my life before that aren’t anymore. I accept that. Please, if you’re reading this and any of it connects or sparks a thought, speak to someone openly and honestly about how you feel. Hey, speak to me if you would like to. I’m always around for a cuppa.
Adapt. Embrace yourself for now, this moment. I will not do the same things as I did before. I’m kinda still the same person but I’ve adapted to my new world. A slower pace, time for those close to me and those afar. I used to have a meticulously planned diary 4 weeks in advance. Not anymore (unless I have a project on, of course). That, in itself, brings nervousness and insecurity. Will I land enough work? Will I earn enough to pay the bills? I could have gone at my new business hammer and tongs, working silly hours again to bring in the cash. I’ve come to realise that, whilst the money is crucial, it’s not my sole motivator for going to work. Mark & I had to adapt to my new income level which means our lifestyle has changed, too.
Look after my health & well-being. I joined a military boot-camp. A tad extreme considering I hadn’t been off my arse for many years. I didn’t even walk to my local shop 100 yards away. I was physically unfit but if I didn’t listen to my head I’d be mentally unfit again, too. Boot-camp was brilliant. I was hooked. 4 times a week for the first 3 months but then I started my interim role and my routine changed. Commuting from Coventry to the Home Counties everyday meant that I was never around for boot-camp, so I stopped. The new year started, my interim finished, and I continued with my consulting work. I had time again so in May I started to learn to run. So many of the fab people on Twitter run and share their stories, PB’s, challenges and they have been an inspiration; of fitness, of commitment, of weight loss, of perseverance. Thank you for all of the advice, guidance and encouragement, the late night calls, the tweets. They mean a great deal to me, as do you.
Running wasn’t and isn’t fun. Watching me is. To be fair, I wasn’t running more blobbing with heaves and wheezes and a cough worthy of 60 a day. I smoke. I’m a pathetic smoker and only do so after my dinner at night, with a Gin or when I’m stressed so maybe 5-8 a day now. It’s still too many, I know. On the days I run, I don’t feel like I need to smoke, even after food. Lesson there, run more and I’ll not want to smoke. Genius! I signed up for a 5k. Then a 10k. Now a Half Marathon. All in less than 6 months. I’ve clearly lost the plot. But it means I have to shift myself and train for them runs. It’s hard. It hurts. I get to 3k, every time, and want to stop. Tell myself I can’t do it anymore. Then I have a word with myself. It goes like this “Can’t is won’t. Won’t is choice meaning you’re choosing to be fucking lazy. You are able, yes? You just don’t like it so have a word, suck it up and move your short arse legs up that hill”. I really dislike me at that point, but shift my arse up that hill, I do. Today, I ran 15k for the first time. I didn’t feel like I was going to die. I felt like I could do more. Until I stopped. Legs turned to jelly, my knee hurt and my ankle was swollen. I limped back home and was advised to run an ice cold bath. WHO DREAMT UP SUCH A HORROR? I didn’t stop shaking with cold for an hour afterwards. I don’t feel too shabby, considering. I plan to go again on Thursday but that’s before I sleep and, no doubt, wake up tomorrow not being able to walk. The mind is willing. I’m feeling mentally strong. Let’s see if the body agrees.
At the same time that I decided to get fit, or die trying, I also started to think about what I wanted to achieve this year. I didn’t like what I was becoming; I was irritable, tired all the time, undecided about what I wanted to do for work, had little time for friends and family. This shizzle had to change. So it did.
I needed to have goals. Mine were quite simple.
- Stop. Just stop, even for a second.
- Eat less, drink less, move more.
- Give back.
- Find a balance. A better working life. A happier life.
Do more for others. I signed up to be a mentor. Both for people who have a similar background to me and for young people looking to get into or back to work. I committed to raise awareness and funds for charity and I applied to be a volunteer in Africa. More of that here.
In the last 4 years, I’ve learned so much about myself, more-so in the last 12 months; What resilience is and means to me. How to spot the signs when my hardiness is waning. What to do about it. Who I need to speak to. Never losing sight of why I need to be mindful of it, the need to be self-aware and take action. I’ve also learned to be kind to myself; forgive myself and not beat myself up when it doesn’t go according to plan. That’s a big deal. I also read more, write more (ish) and spend a load more time on Social Media. That’s my me time and I am so thankful for it and the people it connects me to.
The good news, you don’t have to be a naturally resilient person to develop a resilient mindset but first and foremost, it starts with you.